Usability: Are “Stupid Users” really just a symptom of lazy software?

Any conversation with programmers or technical support people regarding users will often lead to many stories about “can you believe how stupid users are?” But how often is it really the software that is stupid, rather than the users?

Users frequently make some very simplistic assumptions about software (or computerized devices in general):

  • Simple things will work
  • If it lets me do it, everything must be ok.

These are not really bad assumptions. Many of the things the mere users try to do only sound stupid to those “in the know” – those who have been suitably trained and conditioned by software to know that the perfectly reasonable things the user wants to do are indeed stupid.

Take an example. A user has an MP3 file, and they really want a WAV file. Naively, the user renames the file from a .mp3 extension to a .wav extension, and is baffled that the file does not behave as a WAV file. We all know that this is not how software works, right? This user then becomes another story for some tech support person.

However, there was nothing wrong with the user. The user wanted a WAV. The OS let him rename the file from .mp3 to .wav, so everything must be ok, right?

I would suggest that it is the software here that is stupid, not the user. Or more correctly, the software is just lazy. It cannot be bothered preventing the user from doing things that don’t make sense. It cannot be bothered acting in an intuitive manner, or at least informing the user that it is not acting so. Hey, maybe the software could actually do something useful, like convert the MP3 file to a WAV file, which is what the user wants in the first place. Or at the very least, tell the user how to do it.

In general, users are not stupid. They just want to do stuff, and they expect software to allow them to do it in an intuitive manner. So if your tech support logs are filled with stories of “stupid users”, maybe you should have a long, hard look at your software.

Give Your Employees Unlimited Vacation Days?

I found the article Give Your Employees Unlimited Vacation Days | Inc.com. interesting, as I have had this discussion with people in the past. While I pretty much agree with what is said in the post, I have a few things I would like to say (as I do about almost everything!), and a couple of counterpoints.

Going back a bit, vacation time has never been something I looked at closely when I was younger, as I hardly ever took vacation. Through the 90s, I think I went 5 or 6 years without ever taking more than a day or two of vacation. In fact, back in 1999 when I joined Whitehill Technologies, I never even thought to discuss vacation when we were negotiating the employment agreement. Some time after I started, I thought to ask my boss (the CTO) about it, and he said “Fred, you have as much vacation as you can find time to take!”. Note, it turns out I took no vacation in the first few years!

I believe vacation time is important, though. Even when I was not taking vacation, and running myself into the ground, I believed it was part of my responsibility as a leader to ensure members of my team took their vacation time. This all stems from my belief that is a leader’s job to ensure their team stays healthy for the long haul. If you burn your team out during the first few games of the season, you will have nothing left for the playoffs. You have to protect your team, keep them healthy, protect them from the demands of the business, and in many cases (especially with young developer-types who think they are super-human) protect them from themselves.

This is one of the problems I see with the “unlimited vacation days” model, which is often phrased as “take as much or as little vacation as you want”. Unless it is implemented very carefully, and managed by people who truly look out for their teams, there is a great risk of people not taking vacation and burning themselves out – not a good scenario for the staff or the business.

The second issue I have with the “unlimited vacation days” model is that people may feel pressured to take fewer vacation days as they feel they will be viewed poorly for taking time off. This is especially true in a business where you are judged based (wholly or partly) on billable hours realization. There is pressure (real or perceived, implicit or explicit) to not take vacation in order to exceed your target – and you are frequently rewarded and cheered for doing so. Again, this is something that must be carefully managed if you want to ensure your employees maintain life balance. While this is a problem already with “defined vacation allowances”, since many people in North America already do not take the vacation allotted to them (see, for example, here). I think there is risk of the situation becoming much worse if the amount of vacation time is undefined, especially for more junior staff.

Overall, I think it is a great idea, for the reasons stated in the article. But it is not without risk, and needs to be managed, like anything else.

Michael Vick should be banned for life from NFL – George Dohrmann – SI.com

Michael Vick should be banned for life from NFL – George Dohrmann – SI.com

I have a lot of issues with the NFL’s attitude towards players who commit crimes or other actions of which the NFL disapproves.

I agree that what Vick did was horrendous. It is unthinkable to me that any human being could torture and kill animals for recreation (though for some reason shooting animals for entertainment is still acceptable).

That being said, the United States has a legal system. Michael Vick has been judge and punished for his actions by that legal system. If we disagree with the severity (or lack there of) of his punishment, then the issue is with the legal system. Vick has been sentenced. He is serving the terms of his sentence.

What right, then, does the NFL have to impose further punishment on him? Why does the NFL have the right to do what other employers can not?

Say I am a developer, a consultant, or a journalist, and I commit some crime not related to my profession – say DUI, drug possession, jay walking, animal cruelty, whatever – and I am held accountable by the legal system. My actions do not affect my ability to do my job. Would it then be appropriate for my employer to impose a suspension on me? To levy an additional fine? To tell me I am no longer allowed to work in my field?

Then why does the NFL have the right to impose its will, it opinion above and beyond the legal system? 

Words you STILL cannot say on television

I am watch a show on PBS – George Carlin being “honoured” at the Kennedy Center with the Mark Twain Prize. As I am watching this, they are showing a number of old clips, including the infamous “Seven words you can never say on television”.

Am I the only person who sees a great deal of irony in the fact that they can broadcast a show honouring a man like George Carlin, and bleep-out all of the “bad” words?

Random Thought

I was watching a rerun of Boston Legal the other night, and this quote caught my attention – not all of you will understand why, but some might… 

“It’s sad, how you go from intimacy to nothing, cold turkey. I mean, how many people along the way have true meaning in your life, and to suddenly have no contact, and….it’s sad.” – Denny Crane (Boston Legal)

Interesting post – Conspiracy Theorists and free software

Here is an interesting post on the prevalence (or at least existence) of conspiracy-theory-types within the free software movement (actually, they exist within any community). However, this article points out something which I have said before, which is that these people, and other zealots in the open source world, do far more damage to the credibility of open source as a whole than any opponents of open source ever could.

Eventually, the pitch “we are better because we are not Microsoft” is just not enough, and in fact, begins to hurt the movement.

Transitions

So, today I am moving on from Whitehill Technologies (now Skywire Software). I do so with many mixed feelings. When I look back on what I have achieved here, many things stand out. Helping to grow the company to the point where it became a meaningful acquisition target I think is a tremendous accomplishment. We have also developed a great deal of very cool software, and more importantly, software for which real people were willing to pay real money. To have accomplished this from Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada, is a great demonstration of what we can achieve in this region, and is something which I hope to repeat in the future.

The most important aspect of the journey, though, is the people. Having spent the better part of 9 years here, I can honestly say that there are very, very few people I have known here with whom I would not eagerly work again. I would also like to think that I have contributed to the growth of many developers (and other staff). When I joined Whitehill, the development team was very young. Most had only a couple of years of experience. It is extremely gratifying to me to see what has grown out of that team – people who have become technical leaders, managers, and all-around leaders. I cannot express the respect I have for what this group has become. I like to think that I contributed in some way to that growth.

Looking back, there are many people who stand out. I miss the early days with Bob, and Bonzo, and the excitement of working with a small, tight team. Then, of course, there was the winter in a construction trailer in the parking lot with 8 other guys, porting Transport to Java.

There are too many people to list all of them here. First and foremost, I want to thank Steve Palmer. Steve has always been the epitome of professionalism, respectfulness, and generally “doing the right thing”, and I consider Steve to have been an important mentor to me. Among the early developers, Shawn Hogan, who had leadership written all over him 8 years ago, has fulfilled that potential and more. Jerome Sabourin, Greg Clouston, Andrew Sharpe, Anita Richard, Rob Stote and too many others to mention. I am very proud of, and have the utmost respect for, all of you.

It has certainly been an interesting ride.

All of you, take care. I look forward to seeing and working with you all some day in the future.  

Business life lesson – Don’t let anyone steal your dream : Atlantic Canada’s Small Business Blog – IQI Strategic Management Inc.

 

Business life lesson – Don’t let anyone steal your dream : Atlantic Canada’s Small Business Blog – IQI Strategic Management Inc.

This is an interesting post, and fits in well with other things which have been on my mind lately, and with things about which I have posted.

It occurs to me that over the years, I really have let the world steal my dreams. I think we all do this – we get so wrapped up in the day-to-day “operations” of life that we lose track of the grand visions. We also tend to be told that we need to think realistically, and be reasonable, and play it safe. We spend much of our lives being taught what is possible, and even worse, what is impossible. I think that is why so much advancement in science, arts, and other fields comes from the young, because they have not yet learned that what they are trying to do is “impossible”. 

One of the nice things about a grand vision is that you spend much less time worrying about whether it is possible of not, and more time just working towards it.

Treating employees well

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good”Samuel Johnson

Many companies claim to treat their staff well – claiming in fact that people are their greatest resource. In fact, I am pretty sure that I have never heard a company claim the opposite – when was the last time you heard a company loudly proclaim “we treat our staff like crap, and we’re proud of it”? Maybe these companies do exist, albeit briefly. I guess the companies which actually think this way do not make a point of mentioning it.Thinking for now, however, just of the companies who do claim that they treat their staff well, I have come to believe that there are two main groups:

  1. Companies which believe that you treat your staff (and everyone else, for that matter) well simply because it is the right way to be. There is no analysis of the ROI of being respectful. There is a fundamental belief in the right way of doing things, and a corresponding confidence that doing the right things ultimately leads to long term success.
  2. Companies for whom “treating people well” is a strategic decision, accompanied by detailed analyses of the ROI which will be achieved by treating different people with varying degrees of “rightness”. For these companies, there is no right or wrong here, it is merely a way to coerce the people upon whom the company relies into doing what is best for the company.

The difference between these two flavours of “we treat our employees well” is frequently made most clear when someone is let go – when for one reason or another, it is determined that a given individual is no longer of value to the organization. Companies in the former group treat outgoing employees with the same respect and kindness as they have all along. Companies in the latter group, on the other hand, show their true colours at this point, and will generally treat outgoing employees only well enough to avoid being sued, no more.So, which kind of company do you want to be?